Quite apart from the fact that Boeing has already secured firm orders for 306 777Xs and commitments for 14 more since it launched sales of the second-generation 777 family in November 2013, the 777X programme is off to a promising start from the design and production viewpoint.
Boeing’s August 27 announcement that it had finalised the firm configuration of the 777-9, the first and larger of the two initially planned models of the 777X family, meant the company reached the first major 777X programme milestone exactly on time going by the schedule the manufacturer had set itself in 2013.
Taking Boeing’s announcement at face value, this means the 777X programme is running very smoothly, in marked contrast to the 787-8 and 747-8 production programmes which preceded it.
According to Boeing, the 777X design team reached the initial 777-9 design milestone after working closely with airline customers and key suppliers to optimise the configuration of the new aircraft.
Boeing also said its 777-9 firm-configuration milestone marks the completion of configuration trade studies required to finalise the aircraft’s capability and basic design.
In reaching 777-9 firm configuration, the manufacturer has evaluated wind-tunnel test results, aerodynamic performance and structural loads to ensure that the 777-9 and the 777-8 – the 777-9’s shorter-fuselage, longer-range sibling – meet customer requirements.
The firm configuration of the 777-9 includes a new wing which not only will be made entirely from carbon-fibre composite materials (and which will thus become the single largest carbon-fibre structure in any aircraft), but also will be longer, much larger and more flexible than the wing of the first-generation 777-300ER, which the 777-9 will succeed.
Other major differences between the 777-9 and the 777-300ER (and between the 777-8 and the 777-200LR) are that it will have folding wingtips, in order to be able to park within existing airport-gate ramp areas; it will have GE9X engines instead of the GE90-115Bs of earlier-generation 777s; and it will have a stretched fuselage.
Never slow to claim that its aircraft offer superior performance to those of its competitor Airbus, even when they don’t, Boeing is already touting the 777-9 and 777-8 as providing “significant range, payload and fuel burn advantages compared to the A350”.
Boeing also claims the 777X models will have “12 per cent lower fuel consumption and 10 per cent lower operating costs than the competition” – something the US company cannot possibly know at this juncture, considering it hasn’t begun detailed design of the aircraft yet.
Time will tell whether these particular Boeing claims have any truth to them. However, unlike past Boeing senior-management statements regarding the progress of Boeing 787 development which proved to be outright lies, Boeing’s 777-9 firm-configuration announcement is something the manufacturer should quickly be able to prove.
This is because the milestone means Boeing now can proceed exactly on schedule into the detailed-design phase of 777-9X development. The detailed-design phase, which includes design of individual parts and assemblies as well as designing all the aircraft’s electronic, hydraulic, and pneumatic systems, is due to last until 2017.
As soon as Boeing signs off on its detailed designs and allows them to be released to its suppliers and its own manufacturing shops, production will begin. The company expects 777-9X production to begin in 2017 and for the first flight-test 777-9 to perform its maiden flight in 2018.
If it can stick to this schedule with the 777-9, the schedule should allow Boeing to deliver the first production 777-9 in 2020, as originally planned, to one of the six airlines it considers 777X launch customers.
That date is still the best part of five years away, so this time Boeing looks like it has every chance of running a widebody-development programme on time.
If it does, the major restructuring of its Commercial Airplanes business which Boeing performed in 2012 to prevent major programme delays from happening again will have proved a resounding success.